Miraculously surviving the rise of Netflix, the streaming era and now COVID-19, Video Wave of Noe Valley continues to operate from its storefront on 24th Street.
Run by Colin Hutton, who bought the business with his ex-partner in 2005, Video Wave of Noe Valley holds the distinction of being the last full-fledged video rental shop in San Francisco. (Faye’s, on 18th Street, still rents videos, but has largely transitioned into a coffee shop.)
The store opened in 1983, during the days of VHS and well before the proliferation of widescreen TVs and high definition. Hutton still carries a selection of “video home system” tapes.
“There are a number of things on VHS — excellent, wonderful films like ‘Gummo,’ ‘Orphans’ and ‘Man Facing Southeast’ — that haven’t made the transition and that’s the only way to watch them,” Hutton said during a recent visit to the shop.
When Hutton took over, the store hadn’t fully committed to DVDs (Digital Video Discs for you younger readers), offering only a couple thousand in addition to the old VHS library. Now it boasts an impressive 26,000 titles, mostly DVDs and Blu-rays.
Hutton realizes there’s an inconvenience factor for customers to leave their homes and come into the store to rent physical movies, not to mention going back to return the movie. But he also knows that streaming has many downsides.
“People get very frustrated with their streaming services. They can’t find anything, or they cancel because there’s nothing good,” he said. “Or they spend their watching time trying to figure out what they want to watch.”
Hutton adds that many movies are not available on streaming services, and companies like Netflix push certain offerings over others.
“They’re only going to push you toward what they want you to watch, and most of what they have honestly isn’t good enough to be on any video store shelves. There’s better stuff out there.”
In the store, unlike online, people can ask for Hutton’s help. He says he doesn’t know exactly how many movies he’s seen, but “when I go to almost any section in the store, I’ve seen the majority of things on most of the shelves.”
“I’m sure there are people who have seen more than I have,” he continued, “but I have enough knowledge that I can help people find that movie they can’t remember the title of, or I can help them find something like that other thing, or whatever. That’s the best part of the job, is finding out what you’re in the mood to watch, and then hopefully giving you something really good that you haven’t seen before that you’ll enjoy.”
Family movie nights, he explains, are also better because of the store. He describes families heading into different sections, searching for movies, showing the boxes to one another and deciding on something together — to actually watch together (as opposed to on separate screens).
“The way you can browse physical media is so much easier and you can see things quicker and get the detail you want and make a decision,” Hutton said.
In addition to special sections for new releases, documentaries, international films (sorted by country), mysteries, thrillers, horror films, comedies, romance, action, sci-fi, etc., Hutton has sections dedicated to great directors like Hitchcock and Kurosawa.
“I’m a librarian by training, so I like to make little showcases of different eras or different directors or different themes, so people can look at a smaller section,” he said.
In addition to seeking movies that are not available on streaming, most customers come in to find new releases. But the bonus is that they often leave with an older title that has been newly released on DVD or Blu-ray.
“An example is the movie ‘Deep Cover,’ from 1992, which is a wonderful film. I’ve been recommending that movie to people for years, even though all I had was the VHS. But now I picked it up on Criterion, both DVD and Blu-ray.”
In addition to building his massive library, Hutton also maintains it. “I have repair machines that allow for polishing and buffing and, in some extreme cases, sanding of the disc,” he said. “Most of the scratches are on the surface, and those can be removed or buffed out. Usually it’s just oils, like fingerprints, that can be wiped off with a microfiber cloth.”
For all this, however, Hutton said that the business is just barely surviving. The community has helped a great deal. There have been fundraisers and even anonymous donors.
Better still, the filmmakers Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails, of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” are huge fans of the store. They arranged for a special screening of their film in 2019 that helped raise money, and they published a San Francisco Field Guide that includes the store as a major city destination.
But it’s still an uphill battle, and COVID has made things more challenging. Hutton got vaccinated as soon as he could and follows all safety protocols. After lockdown began, he went into the store every day to check messages; people saw him inside and would ask for movies. In the days before curbside pickup, he hand-delivered titles to customers on street corners.
His real secret weapon, though, is his recently implemented subscription-based service. For $6 per month, customers receive one free rental. For $10 per month, it’s one free rental and one free rental mailed. For $12 per month, it’s one free rental and two free snacks or drinks. And for $20 per month, customers get four free rentals.
“That business model is the reason I’m still here,” said Hutton.
Customers can also help by donating their unwanted movies, or purchasing something from the shop’s small supply of used movies. Hutton also started a GoFundMe page.
“Part of why I work so hard doing this,” he says, “is that I believe people should have access to more than what’s just currently in print. They should have access to the history of cinema, in as broad a scope as possible.”
IF YOU GO
Video Wave of Noe Valley
Where: 4027 24th St., S.F.
Hours: 1 to 7:30 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays; 1 to 8 p.m. Saturdays; closed Wednesdays and Sundays